March 11, 2014

Introducing Leidel's Cider

Allow me to formally introduce Mitch Leidel and our joint project -- Leidel's Cider.  Over the last year and a half, I have been documenting our cider experiments.  So much so that I added a Cider tab to the blog to separate this work from the lambic work.  We learned a lot about what does and doesn't work when making Brett fermented cider.  Fortunately we had enough success in the pilot batches to start a Cidery this year and take our knowledge to a commercial scale.  Not only is Leidel's Cider the first to bottle a 100% Brett fermented cider, but we will be focusing exclusively on developing this style of cider!

100% Brett Cider - Hebron
Our first bottling - Hebron.  100% Brett Fermented Brut Cider.
I've asked Mitch to tell you how Leidel's Cider came to be and summarize what we've done so far.  So without further ado, here is Mitch Leidel:
18 months ago, I graduated college and moved back to the family orchard to assume management responsibilities. It was the hope of seeing the orchard again be a functioning operation that brought me back. It had undergone several tough years, and almost ushered our exit from the apple business entirely. My duties were simple and consisted solely of managing our retail operation and facilitating sales of our untended cider crop. The future outlook was bleak and uncertain. 
This took a welcome turn after a conversation with Levi Funk, a family friend passionate about wild fermentation. At the time, he was working with O’so Brewery on some special release beers while starting his own lambic operation, Funk Factory. We found ourselves talking of craft cider’s potential, and Levi brought up Brett fermentation as a potentially unique approach. Thus marked the inception of Leidel’s Cider.

Our first move was to determine if Brett would produce favorable results in cider. To begin our experimentation, we formulated a handful of pilot batches. These included a spontaneously fermented cider, a Farmhouse style cider, 11 different brett ciders, and an old world cider technique called a Keeve.

The juice for these ciders was custom blended by incorporating specific amounts of different apple varieties. In developing a blend, there are three main factors to consider: Brix, pH, and tannin. Brix is a measure of sugar content, pH a measure of acidity, and tannin one of bitterness or astringency. When all factors are in equilibrium, the cider is said to be “balanced”. To ensure this happens, a cidermaker incorporates the necessary amount of different apple varieties to achieve appropriate Brix, pH, and tannin levels. While some blend cider after fermentation, we blended prior to fermentation. Our desired Brix level was ~13, an OG of 1.052. The desired pH was 3.3. Tannin levels, although vital, were not a huge factor in deciding our blend as high tannin apples are virtually nonexistent in our region. Because of this, we used readily available dessert apples such as Haralson, McIntosh, and Wealthy. With each variety accounting for roughly ⅓ of the final blend, it had a pH of ~3.3 and Brix of 12.6, or 1.050 OG.

Everything but the Keeve took about 6 weeks to ferment. We then pulled samples to taste and gauge the initial product. The two barrel fermented ciders (spontaneous and saison) resulted in a fairly lackluster product. Nothing groundbreaking there. The panel of Brett, however, produced some pretty interesting results. We tasted everything, made notes, and scored the ciders. They were given a 5 week aging and clarifying period, and then tasted again, noting our findings. At this point, the ciders we felt had the highest potential were selected and bottled. We wanted to see how these ciders continued to develop in the bottle to determine how to create our flagship ciders.

At this time, the Keeve had completed fermentation and was just finishing a few month period of aging and clarification. It was then primed and bottled. We anticipated this period of bottle conditioning to be lengthier than normal because Keeved juice by nature is low in nutrients that feed yeast. This period however, took quite a bit longer than expected, but the final product had a nice Brett funk and a beautiful clarity. In future productions, we’ll likely aid the bottle conditioning process through addition of yeast nutrient. We would also like at some point to incorporate the Methode Champenoise into this cider to further refine the quality.
After assessing these experimental batches, it was conferred we had a handful of commercially viable ciders. We thus made plans to commence commercial production the ensuing fall with roughly 1,000 gallons of Brett “table” cider and 180 gallons of Keeve. The interim, time was occupied by the administrative work of legally and physically establishing a cider facility. As fall neared, equipment was purchased, fruit arranged for, pressing logistics coordinated, and an endless list of miscellaneous tasks completed. We were still fighting the clock to finish preparations when pressing time came. This paired with pressing over five times the previous years production, kept us quite busy.

2013’s pressing was completed at a neighboring farm that utilized a large continuous belt press. In this style of press, pomace is placed between two vinyl belts that transfer it through a series of steel rollers. The rollers extract the juice which is collected in large trays underneath and then transferred into a holding tank. In all, 17 bins of apples were pressed which yielded about 1,000 gallons.

Unfortunately, this press was unable to logistically press for a Keeve, so we had to resort to other means. We used an electric grinder and bladder press rather than the hand mill and crank press employed in previous years. The electric grinder was far faster than a hand mill, milling 3 bins, or 2,400 lbs., of apples in several hours. This yielded ~360 gallons of pomace which was packed into containers, covered to prevent oxidation, and left to macerate for 24 hours. The next day a 30 gallon bladder press was used to extract the juice. Our final yield was 155 gallons, slightly less than our goal of 180 gallons. Keeving is closer to an art than a science as it is never a guarantee a successful keeve will take place. While we were successful on our first batch, the keeving was unfortunately not successful this time. It is an art we plan to continue learning about though. It wasn’t a loss either as the juice went into freshly dumped 12 year Bourbon barrels, a technique we wouldn’t have explored if not for this circumstance.

For our larger pressing, the blend was similar to last years with pH and sugar levels again being our main focus. A decision to use more McIntosh for aromatics was one of the only tweaks made. The pH was 3.3 and Brix 12.6, or 1.051 OG. All juice was pumped into 4 different 330 gallon IBC totes; each tote was filled with a maximum of 250 gallons, leaving adequate headspace. These totes are quite economical and widely used by those entering the American hard cider industry as well as food production of various kinds. We, thus, decided, to utilize these vessels as fermentation tanks for our first commercial production. 
At this time, our flagship ciders have finished primary fermentation, doing so in approximately 6 weeks, and undergone a several month period of maturation and clarification. In addition, our first ever commercial bottling took place just last weekend with 2,200 bottles of our Hebron cider being packaged. Find your liquor store’s cider section and watch it closely as distribution into Minnesota commences soon. And be sure to check out leidelscider.com or follow Leidel's Cider on Facebook for detailed information on future releases.

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